Late last week I got a surprise in the mail. I could tell immediately what was Within the familiar padded envelope as I noticed the rough outline of a thin rectangular object -- mostly likely a video game. However, I was more surprised when I discovered that it was the reissued version of "Dragon's Dogma" -- including the latest DLC expansion "Dark Arisen." Capcom's take on a western RPG passed me by the first go a round and, honestly, I haven't really given much thought about it since. Still, I was a bit curious about it as several of my friends quickly drew lines in the sand about it's quality. But I wanted to find out for myself.
I talked before about my one time love for JRPGs, and how they tend to lean on the older traditional view of video games; and for the last several years, there have been talks about the declining influence of Japan in favor of aggressive western developers and publishers. We've seen this mostly with the tidal wave of FPS and TPS games this generation -- probably than almost the last 20 years combined. Somewhere down the line, Japanese developers have tried to capture that elusive western audience. So in order to stay relevant (and profitable) these devs have often had to make hard choices, or move in non-traditional ways. Unfortunately, these titles more often miss than hit, with one niche (but amazing) game for every dozen or so mediocre debuts.
This is where it gets a little interesting for you RPG fans that favor western influences. "Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen" is, in a way, Capcom's reach for your attention. It's not perfect -- it's not even all that great; but it does have a lot of potential.
Mixing elements from "Dark Souls", "Kingdoms of Amalur", "The Elder Scrolls", and"Shadow of the Colossus" may seem like a confusing recipe at first -- and, in truth, the concoction is slightly bitter -- but the kitchen sink and spaghetti approach of seeing what sticks pays off in a way.
The narrative sets up a story of a dragon that heralds the end of the world. First up for the barbecuing is your coastal coastal village. You bravely (stupidly) attempt to beat away this evil dragon, but ultimately succumb to his immense power and have your heart stolen. However, this doesn't kill you outright, instead makes you some kind of folklore figure known as Arisen. Basically, this means you are the special chosen one that has to slay the dragon, stop the apocalypse, and win the day.
Being Arisen has it's own perks. You know have complete control over entities called Pawns that will aid you in combat. You'll also be able to create your own Pawn in addition to recruiting two more for a party of four. You'll find new Pawns in this void-like realm as well as out in the world and can dismiss and recruit at your discretion. Interestingly, Pawns are not all randomly created; in fact, most are user generated characters created by other players. These UGC Pawns aren't any more or less special than others, but it's neat idea that can share your Pawn with others. And in some rare cases, players who select your Pawn can kit them out with upgraded gear or gift items to them for you to use later. It's kind of weird answer to multiplayer that I would love to see even more fleshed in a sequel.
Combat is the real shining point of the game. Like "Amalur" and to some extent "Dark Souls," there's a real weightiness to fighting. You'll have a selection of various classes from your standard Fighter, Mage, and Archer to more advanced and hybrid versions, e.g. Mage Knight. Dogma also encourages you to change your class regularly, with only a slight skill point cost. You'll level up in the standard way -- beating the crap out of every wolf, rabbit, bandit, goblin, or anything else that gets in your way. you earn class points as you level that can be spent upgrades and skills. Some of these even transfer over into other classes, which is nice as you'll change classes often as you meet different challenges.
There's a real visceral physicality to combat -- especially when facing the larger mythic creatures. As you learn attack patterns and weaknesses. You'll leap onto your fair share of ogres, cyclops, griffins etc; hanging on for dear life, eyeing your stamina, keeping track of your Pawns all while beating the poor creature into submission. It's quit thrilling, and when the music amps up, there's little else that can compare.
Unfortunately, here's where the bugginess kicks in. You're Pawn's AI is a bit lacking, and without proper set up, they simply won't be much of help at all. In theory you can issue simple commands to the group but rarely do they ever make an effort to follow them. They're decent at following you as you travel but can easily get pulled away or aggro the various enemies in the field -- making simple trips out cumbersome.
Furthermore, the menu system is downright archaic and almost needs a tutorial to navigate. After an hour or so, you'll get used to managing your team but with some long load times (you'll definitely want to install) you'll be wishing for a quick swap button. There's also a simple crafting system that really could have used a makeover. It's not game breaking but it sure is annoying.
Which brings me to the atrocious save system. I've easily lost several hours of gameplay due to awkward checkpointing that isn't all too clear. Supposedly, when you die you can choose to reload the last save but you'll need to pay attention to the wording as you you can also load the last checkpoint which could be any number of moments previously saved. Lastly, there's only one save slot and you can't check the date it was saved -- in fact you can't check anything about it. When you boot up the game you'll just have a "continue" option. I highly suggest hard saving often.
One positive note is the fairly fleshed out environment. It's mostly comprised of your typical fantasy settings -- imposing castles, dark, foreboding forests, etc. -- but I found it had some charm. What makes it special is the scope of the environment. As you'll be doing a great deal of walking around -- and getting lost (mostly due to a poorly implemented map and waypoint system)-- each trek out into the world feels like a real adventure. You'll see a weird structure in the distance and you'll be compelled to check it out. It's so much fun just wondering around, getting into random fights and exploring that it's a real shame that map is so small. Capcom could have doubled the space and made a really epic quest. Perhaps it's best for a sequel to expand on the scope.
In spite of the bugs, the glitchy, spastic AI, the inscrutable maps, the antiquated menu, the sporadic, schizophrenic narrative, and the hair-ripping save structure -- there is a glimmer of a spark of an idea of goodness. And it's not all bad. The combat is quite exhilarating -- leaping onto the back of a thrashing Chimera, plowing your sword deep into it's flesh or queuing up a blistering fire spell to scour a gaggle of goblins to ash. The sprawling, well-realized environments can be a bit tough to look at with all the grainy textures, but the awe-inspiring vistas and richly moulded geography are beautiful in their own right. "Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen" is a game hampered by maddening design choices but is also oddly endearing. It's not for everyone, and realistically, you probably shouldn't play it; but if you 've ever wanted to see how Capcom could make an open-worldish RPG (or you're just really into the medieval fantasy settings full of myth and lore) then it's worth your time to check it out.